Dal­las out­look: sun, smiles

Con­fi­dent lead­ers try to keep ex­pec­ta­tions in check as camp opens

Austin American-Statesman - - SPORTS - KIRK BOHLS

SAN AN­TO­NIO — Some­one ac­ci­den­tally ven­tur­ing into the Alam­od­ome late Fri­day af­ter­noon might have mis­taken the Dal­las Cow­boys’ open­ing press con­fer­ence for a sum­mer pic­nic.

All the event lacked were bal­loons and a cake.

When Jerry Jones wasn’t gush­ing over his Ford spon­sor, the team owner was prac­ti­cally dumb­founded by the newly shaped Wade Phillips — sans about 40 pounds since last sea­son.

When Phillips wasn’t won­der­ing why Nutrisys­tem hadn’t yet called, the fourth-year head coach was all but show­ing off pho­tos of his 5-day-old grand­daugh­ter Ivy Jo.

And di­rec­tor of player per­son­nel Stephen Jones trumped them both by an­nounc­ing that sec­on­dround pick Sean Lee, a linebacker out of Penn State, had agreed to terms. For the sec­ond straight year, ev­ery Cow­boys draft pick — most no­tably first-round wide re­ceiver Dez Bryant — has been signed.

In fact, Jones couldn’t help kid­ding about the oft-tardy col­lege star from Ok­la­homa State: “He was not on time, but be­fore time.”

Camp Sun­shine opens here to­day. Clouds to come later — which is why Jones and Phillips both down­played run­away op­ti­mism.

Still, Dal­las’ train­ing camp was ush­ered in with smiles all around. Those fa­cial ex­pres­sions were in­verted the last time the Cow­boys con­vened in an of­fi­cial ca­pac­ity, get­ting trounced by the Vik­ings in the NFC semi­fi­nals.

The me­mory of that 34-3 blowout hasn’t kept Phillips up nights, mostly be­cause it wouldn’t change the out­come and he wouldn’t learn any­thing he didn’t al­ready know the moment the fi­nal sec­onds were ticked off.

Dal­las must pro­tect Tony Romo. Phillips should be

Con­tin­ued from C more dar­ing and should have gam­bled on the open­ing drive rather than at­tempt­ing — and missing — that long-range field goal. Cer­tain front­line play­ers, like fad­ing wide re­ceiver Roy Wil­liams and banged-up run­ning back Mar­ion Bar­ber, had bet­ter get their acts to­gether.

Things will never be as rosy in Cow­boys World as they are right now, as the first NFL team to open camp. Jones and Phillips, re­al­iz­ing that, tem­pered some out­siders’ over-the-top en­thu­si­asm for Dal­las’ chances of be­com­ing the first team in NFL his­tory to play in a Su­per Bowl that it is host­ing.

“We’re try­ing to get the deal done,” Jones said in his open­ing state­ment. “We know we have a lot of prom­ise. But there are no guar­an­tees.”

Said Phillips: “We don’t even have a team yet. We’ve got 80 guys fight­ing for spots.”

Well, he’s prob­a­bly got about five com­pet­ing for the fi­nal ros­ter po­si­tions. The Cow­boys are that set.

Dal­las is far from a per­fect team, how­ever, and it’d take a tremen­dous leap of faith to sug­gest a team that has won just one play­off game in the last 13 sea­sons should be an over­whelm­ing fa­vorite to rep­re­sent the NFC in Su­per Bowl XLV.

But the Cow­boys are clearly the class of the NFC East, al­most by the process of elim­i­na­tion.

They were the only team in the league to rank in the top 10 in both rush­ing and pass­ing. Romo dras­ti­cally re­duced his in­ter­cep­tions. DeMar­cus Ware is the NFL’s premier pass-rusher, and both cor­ner­backs were Pro Bowlers. The team is stacked. Hey, they handed even­tual Su­per Bowl cham­pion New Or­leans its first loss of the sea­son last year, as late as De­cem­ber.

“I think we’re one of the more tal­ented teams in the league,” Jones told me, “but I’m pulling up there.”

The sea­son sets up great for the Cow­boys. Dono­van McNabb di­luted the strength of the Ea­gles and beefed up the bet­ter-thanpeo­ple-think Red­skins with his off­sea­son trade, but nei­ther team was close to Dal­las’ cal­iber a year ago. The Cow­boys crushed the Ea­gles in back-to-back games — the last one in the post­sea­son — and shut down DeSean Jack­son be­fore he had to rely on passes from McNabb re­place­ment Kevin Kolb. The Giants have fallen off dra­mat­i­cally since their Su­per Bowl cham­pi­onship, mostly on the de­fen­sive side.

Twenty of 22 Dal­las starters from last sea­son are back. So set was the ros­ter that Jones didn’t even scour the free-agency bin and chose to stand pat ex­cept for a trade of un­der­achiev­ing linebacker Bobby Car­pen­ter to the Rams for their un­der­achiev­ing left tackle, Alex Bar­ron.

Therein lies prob­a­bly the biggest is­sue fac­ing the Cow­boys, who re­leased Flozell Adams in April. Can fourth-year Doug Free re­place the 12-year vet­eran at left tackle and keep Romo up­right long enough for him to be the elite NFL quar­ter­back that he is? The team is show­ing a lot of faith in Free af­ter ef­fec­tively re­plac­ing the in­jured Marc Colombo last sea­son, but Bar­ron waits in the wings.

Aside from that, the devel­op­ment of un­proven kicker David Buehler in an area of un­mit­i­gated dis­as­ter a year ago ranks a close sec­ond. The Cow­boys missed a league-high 11 field goals in the reg­u­lar sea­son and two more in the play­offs, and will now be count­ing on a sec­ond-year kicker who has one of the strong­est legs in the league but must over­come ac­cu­racy prob­lems.

Dal­las will give him ev­ery chance to win the job. In Au­gust. Af­ter that, the stakes are too high to be timid.

It’d take a tremen­dous leap of faith to sug­gest a team that has won just one play­off game in the last 13 sea­sons should be an over­whelm­ing fa­vorite to rep­re­sent the NFC in Su­per Bowl XLV. But the Cow­boys are clearly the class of the NFC East.

Tony Gu­tier­rez pho­tos

Cow­boys coach Wade Phillips, left, and team owner Jerry Jones, right, laugh as Jones re­sponds to a ques­tion on Fri­day.

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